Grade Eleven Thematic Unit : Introduction

Subject: Native/Indian/Aboriginal Studies/Social Studies

Topic: The Importance of Water in Native American Ceremonies

Time Frame: Four 45-60 minute periods.

Objectives: Students will be able to reflect upon the use and importance of water in Native American ceremonies and practices. Students will be able to understand that water and honouring water was an important part of First Nations’ culture before and after European contact. Students will be able to research and present on various ceremonies and practices regarding water.

Methodology: Lecture, Group Discussion, Individual Research, Group Activity


  • Information about Aboriginal Ceremonies
  • Student Worksheet and Information

Space Requirements: Classroom and space to break off into small groups

Background Information: Aboriginal spiritual and cultural practices and beliefs are passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth. Shamans and Elders within many Native communities are responsible for the transmission of these beliefs and practices and must undergo a process of training (CMP, 2009). Many First Nation peoples believe that their culture should not be written down or recorded and that it should only to be passed down verbally, as then the Creator will decide what is meant to be remembered and what is meant to be forgotten (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

Cultural practices and ceremonies vary among First Nations, however there are two ceremonies that seem to be found throughout Turtle Island (North America): Fasting and Sweat Lodge Ceremonies. Both of these ceremonies deal with water. Water is believed to be a meditative medium, a purifier, a source of power and, most importantly, to have a spirit. It is the blood of Mother Earth, the nourishment to her children (Blackstock, 2001, 57-8). The Sweat Lodge is a ceremony that involves one’s immersion within the Spirit, while Fasting rituals involve the deprivation of water. The way that these ceremonies are conducted by various First Nations varies according to the beliefs of the person, community, elders and keepers of the ceremonies.

The Sweat Lodge ceremony is one of the most widespread traditions among First Nations. It is a rite of purification and spiritual renewal that is practiced by many First Nations (Portman and Garrett, 2006, p. 463). The ceremony consists of participants being exposed to high temperatures in an enclosed structure for a given period of time (Crawford and Kelley, 2005, p. 1069). In contrast to the popular saunas in Western culture, the Sweat Lodge is distinguished by its spiritual nature, which involves prayer, singing, and deep personal reflection. It is a transformative ritual that moves people between profound and sacred worlds (Crawford and Kelley, 2005, p. 1083).

Fasting rituals are also found among many First Nations. A fast is an abstention from food and water. A fast allows an individual to focus on their spirit rather than their body. It is a sacrifice of the body for the answers of one’s mind. In Native American cultures, a fast is a purification ritual that brings an individual closer to the spirit world (Lyon, 1996, p. 82).

Dependant upon a person’s nation and tribal affiliation, fasting and Sweat Lodge can occur in several different ways and at various different times in one’s life. For example, individuals can participate in Sweat Lodge Ceremonies from a baby until they are very old. By contrast, fasting is usually not done until a child reaches puberty or is given a vision in which they are instructed to fast (Anishnawbe Health Toronto).

The practice of these ceremonies has been found since time immemorial. However, there was a historical effort to outlaw such ceremonies and practices by religious and civil authorities in the 1800s and early 1900s (Crawford and Kelley, 2005, p. 1069). In Canada, the government introduced the Indian Act, which tried to regulate Aboriginal way of life. The government believed that they were acting as a parent when they devised statutes of the Indian Act that provided for the assimilation and the cultural genocide of the First Nation peoples. Many First Nation ceremonies were thought to be uncivilized from Western perspectives, such as the Sun Dance which involves the practice of self-mutilation. However, First Nation communities are challenging this legacy of colonial suppression with a recent revival of these previously outlawed rituals and ceremonies (Crawford and Kelley, 2005, p. 1069).

Possible Literary Sources

Blackstock, Michael (2001). Water: A First Nations’ Spiritual and Ecological Perspective. BC Journal of Ecosystems and Management, 1, 54-67.

Bruchac, Joseph. (1993). The Native American Sweat Lodge: History and Legends. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press.

Cohen, Kenneth. (2006). Honouring the Medicine: The Essential Guide to Native American Healing. New York: Ballantine Books.

Crawford, Suzanne J. and Dennis F. Kelley. (2005). American Indian Religious Traditions: An Encyclopedia (Vol.3). Oxford: ABC-CLIO Inc.

Lyon, William. (1996). Encyclopedia of Native American Healing. New York: W.W. Norton Company Inc.

Portman, Tarell A.A. and Michael T. Garrett. (2006). Native American Healing Traditions. International Journal of Disability, Development and Education, 53, 453- 469.

Waegemakers Schiff, Jeannette and William Pelech. (2007). The Sweat Lodge Ceremony for Spiritual Healing. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work, 26, 71-93.